Marianne Heron heads for the Cederberg to find out why problems are never problems for boulderers
While most of us go through life trying to avoid problems, there are people out there who welcome them, literally with open arms. Take boulderers, who like nothing better than to be confronted by a really challenging problem.
As it is, a problem in ‘bouldering speak’ is actually not a problem, but the best route to climb a difficult rock, armed with nothing more than rubber-soled climbing shoes, a puff or two of chalk and a bucketful of skill. South Africa boasts one of the three top sites in the world for this fast-growing sport, and to see for ourselves we set off for Rocklands, bouldering Mecca of the Cederberg.
En route we stop in Clanwilliam at the Yellow Aloe Guest House and Coffee Shop for some sensational cheesecake made by the queen of cheesecakes, Ingrid Diner of True Love Cheesecakes, and get lucky (luck plays a big part in this story – discovering the cheesecake was lucky, too). We come across top US boulderer, Matt Fultz from Iowa, and fellow enthusiast, Nathan Gerhardt from Oregon, who is filming Matt in action for a bouldering website. It’s kinesiology student Matt’s first time travelling out of the States. “I’ve been here for ten days and am loving it,” he says. “Bouldering is a chance to interact with the environment and when you see it online you get so excited about it.”
Breathtaking, even heart-stopping, is our reaction when we see bouldering in action the next morning at De Pakhuys farm, a bouldering hotspot in the beautiful Agter-Pakhuis Valley, which takes its name from the sandstone rock formations heaped like goods in a warehouse. Australian James Kassay from Melbourne and South African twins Clare and Amy Langmore, now based respectively in Melbourne and Sydney, are climbing rocks with names like Poison Dwarf and Girl on My Mind, just two of the thousand-odd, listed bouldering sites on the farm.
To the uninitiated, these giant boulders with bulging overhangs and barely perceptible crevices look impossible to climb. But in a matter of seconds, from a sit-start, James is on top of Poison Dwarf, his moves sheer poetry in motion, which make the climb look easy. Having discovered climbing at the age of ten, James has represented Australia in international bouldering competitions for the last 13 years, and has just taken part in four international contests around Europe.
James does the climb again for us as Clare describes some of the moves he makes – a heel hook, a side pull, a dynamic hand, high stepping, crimps and an open-hand hold, while Amy positions the ‘crash pad’ – the mattress designed to break a climber’s fall – on the ground beneath him.
“The thing about bouldering is it challenges you mentally and physically,” explains James. Aside from steely strength combined with a good weight-power ratio, a lot of the skill is in the planning. “You have to look at the problem first,” he says. “One of the advantages is that bouldering is very social. You do it with other people, people of different age groups and levels who can work on various levels of problems on the same boulder. It gives you a whole body workout and it’s a also great way to travel.”
A sceptic might well ask whether one rock isn’t much like another wherever you go – for instance the Grampians in Australia or Fontainebleau in France. “No two boulders are the same,” says James. “The quality of rocks here is very good and there are great top-outs (flat tops to the rocks), and your technique gets better going to different areas.” Clare adds that Rocklands is one of their favourite bouldering spots, just as more luck befalls us and we find German boulderers Anna Jesussek from Kiel and Lennie von Scherenberg from Cologne, with crash pads strapped to their back looking much like they are heading off to spend a holiday sleeping outdoors.
Bouldering is a low-level entry sport, in other words it doesn’t involve much expensive equipment and it also suits youngsters who may not shine at other sports. “It has transformed some kids’ lives,” says James. But bouldering is transforming lives in the local community, too. A decade ago Thuys and Karin Kruger bought the run-down De Pakhuys farm as a holiday retreat and did up one of its cottages. Never did they imagine their barren rocks were about to become a magnet for a veritable United Nations of visitors. “The first boulderers arrived in 2003,” says Thuys. “Now we have Australians, British, Germans Americans, Austrians and Swiss staying here.” Seeing the potential in the sport, he gave up his Cape Town-based retailing business and now has a flourishing enterprise in partnership with Mark and Marinda Botha. Thuys looks after the marketing, accounting and reservations for the eight cottages and camp site now available, while Mark looks after the farming side, farming olives, grapes, rooibos and sheep.
And that’s the thing about bouldering. The spin-offs benefit the community. Liz and Connie du Toit bought neighbouring Alpha Excelsior wine farm and guest house in 2004, planning for summer visitors, and found instead an influx of boulderers, some of whom stay for as long as three months at a time. Now they have four self-catering cottages plus the guest house, and their daughter Becky Holtom (if the name sounds familiar her great-granddad designed the peace sign) runs the Hen House coffee shop. Specialised kinesiologist Tracy du Plessis also practises on the farm, treating climbers for twisted backs, stiffness and restoring them to top form with relaxing treatments.
Fate takes a further hand in our story with an Eskom power cut lasting from dawn to dusk, but Luck comes to our rescue with an invitation to the Sunday buffet lunch at Khoisan Kitchen opposite Traveller’s Rest Farm Stall, nearby on the road to Wuppertal. Liselle Ehlers, manager of both, lays on a fabulous feast (thanks to gas and an old-fashioned stove) of roast lamb, oxtail, chicken, roasted vegetables, malva pudding and home-baked bread rolls.
Back at De Pakhuys we hear the dramatic story of the January fire that swept through the Pakhuis Conservancy last January. Just when it seemed the 25kph flames would destroy the two farms, the wind dropped and the fire died just 50 metres from their boundary. Talk about luck.